Spring Forecast: Outside Linebacker
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — We are officially less than one week away from the start of spring practice at Ohio State. Let that soak in for a moment.
We know the Buckeyes will be ranked among the top three or four teams in the country heading in 2013, but it will be the OSU defense under the microscope early in the season. First-year defensive coordinator Luke Fickell had an up and down year with his group last season, but there will be high expectations heading into this season despite the fact Ohio State will have six new faces in the front seven.
Who will join Ryan Shazier? We take a closer look at the outside linebacker position in our latest Spring Forecast.
Who's Coming Back?
takes it to the house for a pick six against Penn State.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Fortunately for Luke Fickell and the Buckeyes, they will have one of the better outside linebackers in the country returning for the 2013 season. With all the losses in the front for Ohio State, linebacker Ryan Shazier is a beacon of hope for a defense that was very inconsistent throughout most of the 2012 season.
Shazier was one of the better players on Ohio State’s defense all season, but it wasn’t until late in the year when he really emerged as one of the best linebackers in the entire Big Ten Conference.
The decision to switch Zach Boren over to the defense seemed to have dramatically positive impact on Shazier, who started to slow down and let things come to him during the second half of the season. He stopped overrunning everything and started playing with better leverage, which explains why he finished second in the conference in tackles per game (9.5) and third in total tackles.
On the other side, the Buckeyes will have to replace fifth-year senior Etienne Sabino, who battled through a broken leg midway through the season. Sabino definitely saved his best football for his senior season, and the Buckeyes didn’t really have a viable replacement when he was out.
Sophomore Joshua Perry will likely get the first shot to replace Sabino at the Sam outside linebacker spot, but Curtis Grant might also get a look there in the spring if he doesn’t solidify himself as the team’s starting middle linebacker.
Expectations Heading Into Spring
Photo by Jim Davidson
A lot depends on what happens with Perry, Grant and whoever else is battling for that other outside linebacker spot across from Shazier. Sophomore Jamal Marcus and David Perkins could also be in the mix, but linebacker has to be a major concern for the Buckeyes heading into spring practice.
Having Shazier back for another year gives them a little more comfort in knowing that at least one guy out there will know what he’s doing. The Florida native is headed into his true junior season at Ohio State and expectations are through the roof.
Shazier led the Big Ten in tackles-for-loss a year ago and finished among the top 10 in sacks. He’s one of the faster players at his position around the country and should be a major candidate to capture the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013.
Best Case Scenario
Photo by Dan Harker
Shazier cannot be a one-man show at linebacker, which means someone else is going to have to emerge in the offseason to play on the opposite side. The best-case scenario for the Buckeyes would be for Curtis Grant to emerge as the 5-star prospect he was coming out of high school.
If he can lock down the middle linebacker spot, it would make things a lot less stressful for Fickell and Meyer in their search for a Sam linebacker to replace Sabino on the outside. Ohio State played a lot of nickel defense a year ago, so they really need to make sure they have at least one other solid guy to play along Shazier at all times.
In an ideal world, Grant would become that guy in the middle, which would allow Perry to stay on the outside, where he could develop into a solid young player at outside linebacker. Perkins and Marcus are both physical freaks, so the perfect scenario would have both of them picking up the defense this spring so they can at least provide depth and competition for that outside linebacker spot.
One to Watch For
It’s a shame Mike Mitchell won’t be at Ohio State until the fall because his combination of size and athleticism would make him an intriguing option for the Buckeyes. He has a lot of learning to do, but Mitchell is 6-4, 225 pounds and runs like a deer.
He probably wouldn’t step in and lock down that No. 2 linebacker spot as a freshman, but he might give them an interesting option at Sam linebacker, where he could use his athletic ability and pass-rushing skills to make an early impact.
One young guy worth keeping an eye on this spring is Perkins. At 6-2, 220, the South Bend, Ind. product could play either Sam or Will linebacker on the outside. He might be the quickest linebacker on the roster and if he can figure things out mentally, it might give the Buckeyes the ability to play more base defense this year, which is something Everett Withers said they would eventually like to do.
Trending Up or Down
Like most positions at Ohio State, the outside linebacker spot is definitely trending up heading into the 2013 season. It’s still nowhere near where it needs to be for this team to be a legitimate national title contender.
The return of Ryan Shazier gives them a bona fide star on the outside, but there is still too much uncertainty surrounding the other starting spot heading into the spring. The reason we still consider outside linebacker to be trending up is the fact Meyer has added some serious depth in his first two recruiting classes.
That includes Perry, Perkins and Marcus from the 2012 class, but also Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson in 2013. The Buckeyes are also in great position to add another crop of talented young linebackers for 2014, including possibly the No. 1 player at the position in Raekwon McMillan out of Georgia.
Shazier should be in store for another monster season, but this team really needs to get some young guys up to speed at the other two linebacker spots. It all starts in the middle, which we will get into in our next Spring Forecast piece, but someone from that group of 2012 kids has got to take the next step this offseason.
If Grant can’t lock things down at Mike linebacker – and right now I’m not convinced he’s ready to be the answer – then maybe he can slide outside to play Sam. Maybe not. The kid out of Virginia is the biggest question mark on the team right now and until that gets figured out, I’m not sure we will know enough about the linebackers.
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